Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Finish Line

One morning in late 2007, I was out walking the picket line (along with about 1,000 other members of the Writers Guild of America) when something occurred to me: I didn’t know any of these people! I’d been a professional screenwriter in Los Angeles for over fifteen years and hardly knew anyone else who wrote movies for a living. Although I’d been churning out modestly budgeted comedies for studios for years, I mostly perceived myself as a fringe member of the Hollywood community at best. Like many people in the business, I was still waiting for something to happen that would confirm that I had finally crossed over into safe territory; that I’d landed on that magical list of people who could expect to remain employed (at hefty salaries) for the rest of their natural lives. Of course, I knew that no such list existed, but Hollywood is a town largely fueled by vague and far-reaching dreams. That’s when I asked myself the big question: Had my dream come true? Was I already living it?

After a fair amount of nail biting, I decided to take a stab at writing a weekly blog about this seemingly taboo subject: being middle class in Hollywood. Since I’d recently picked up a second career as a character actor (thank you, “Boston Legal”), I decided to call my new blog, “Parts and Labor.” It debuted on February 16, 2008 with a short essay about the conclusion of the strike that I called “The Absence of the Joke.” Initially, I didn’t really have a game plan in mind other than to tell a few war stories and pontificate a little now and then. My biggest concern was how the hell I would churn out one wholly original piece of writing each week. Finishing is often a sticky subject for writers. It means you’ve opened yourself up to hearing somebody’s verdict on whatever piece of your soul you’ve just laid bare. Having been a free-lance screenwriter and playwright for a while, I was acquainted with deadlines, but was also used to being able to buy myself a little extra time when I needed it. This was different. Monday would actually roll around every seven days. Could I do it? Intrigued, I decided to try it for six weeks.

I started to get email from readers almost immediately. Amazingly, most of them were not friends, but total strangers. They were other writers, directors and actors who’d had similar experiences to mine and were encouraging me to keep going; to finally pay a little tribute to those of us who work just outside the spotlight. In another life, I should've probably been a lounge singer since there’s nothing I like better than having requests shouted at me. I was spurred on and decided to commit to a full six months of writing the blog.

Amazingly, the weekly essays started bringing me small magazine-writing gigs and I even picked up a book agent. I got emails from studio executives thanking me for writing compassionately about their profession and a depressed housewife in Nebraska even wrote to say she felt comforted to learn that my life was almost as pointless as hers. A couple of alcoholics wrote to say that my stories of overcoming writers’ block paralleled their struggle to stay sober. Despite my fear that I'd soon run out of entertaining stories, I decided to commit for a year. It was scary. Many Sundays, I’d find myself staring at my laptop with nothing to say; certainly nothing funny or wise. Not willing to risk embarrassment, I'd just start typing; already dreading that moment in a few short hours when (like it or not) I’d have to press the “publish” button. It was a great exercise in “finishing” and also a great exercise in faith – a subject I always drill into my writing students.

Silly as this sounds, becoming a writer is a little like declaring to the world that you “see dead people”; that those spectral images; those wisps of story, memory and feeling darting in and out of our consciousness are in fact, real and have meaning. But it is only when you become relentlessly committed to the idea; when you choose to believe in the ghost; that it slowly but surely materializes. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Richard Rhodes, tells a funny story in his book, “How to Write” about how, as a college student, he approached his literature professor seeking a formula that would insure his success as a writer. The professor sternly replied that it wasn’t really that hard. “Apply ass to chair” he said.

Imagine my surprise, when last week I glanced at the calendar and realized that I’d actually managed to publish “Parts and Labor” (without interruption) for over a year. Writing this blog has sometimes been great fun; sometimes a bit of a chore. Some pieces that I thought were brilliant and anticipated would get a great response, didn’t. Others that I thought were mediocre, generated tons of “funniest thing I’ve ever read” email. Who knows? Not me. I guess that’s why I keep doing it. I’d like to thank all of you who have continue to read P&L and also apologize for some of the less-than-stellar pieces you've politely weathered. Having recently committed to an ambitious slate of writing projects for 2009, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep up my prolific output of “Parts and Labor” but I’ll do what I can. If I start missing Mondays, I hope you’ll bear with me. A guy’s gotta eat.

Given all the chaos that’s going on in the world, I suppose writing about the creative struggles of people in Hollywood might seem sort of trivial now. But what can I say? I love show business and continue to feel amazed when all the forces collide and somehow deliver a project that not only doesn’t suck, but is actually gripping or funny or innovative. And then there are the people. It’s true. There are no people like show people and personally, I think the most valuable thing we have to offer the world (aside from our talent) is our inherent knowledge of how to laugh, roll with life’s punches and survive your own game plan. Hopefully, as we all wade out of this swamp together, sharing our stories will keep us awake and alert on the journey. Thanks again for all of your loyalty and enthusiasm. Gotta go. I’ve got a treatment to finish. Have a great week, Hollywood!



Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Monday, February 16, 2009

The History of Drama (Part Six): A Member of the Club

When I was a freshman in high school, I went to see our Drama Club’s production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” by Paul Zindel. It was a strange choice for a high school since the play was a bitter, caustic tale about the toxic effects of an alcoholic mother on her two damaged daughters. Our school’s drama teacher was sort of a sardonic 60’s hippie who encouraged his students to call him “Skip” and loved nothing better than rocking the establishment’s boat. The only problem was that the “establishment” never came to any of the plays he staged. This was a small factory town that manufactured industrial kitchen equipment; their biggest seller being the jumbo meat slicers. The school’s student body was distinctly divided between the “jocks” whose fathers wore white shirts and worked in the company’s offices and the “greasers” whose dads worked in the foundry and smelled of sulfur.

I don’t remember why I went to the play. Before that night, I’d had no real interest in live theatre. All that changed about fifteen minutes into the play when Valryn Warren walked onto the stage. Despite the fact I was gay, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was jaw-droppingly beautiful with her raven-haired pageboy and voluptuous figure. At age sixteen, she was one of those unlucky girls who already looked like she was twenty-five. I distinctly remember her as being brilliant as the rebellious “Ruth” who fearlessly sassed her drunken mother and then (in Act Two) collapsed onto the floor in a very realistic-looking epileptic fit! I left the theater a changed boy. My life now had a purpose: to find out all I could about Valryn Warren. Soon I learned that she smoked, drank, read paperback books, used bad language and was frequently seen in detention. I was in love.

I literally spent an entire year working up my courage and in September of my sophomore year, I decided to audition for the Drama Club’s fall play, Peter Shaffer’s “Black Comedy” – an urbane British farce guaranteed (like all of Skip’s shows) to sail far over the heads of the local populace. I was terrified by the prospect of having to act, but if it meant that I might get to breathe the same air as the mysterious Valryn Warren, it was worth it. My knees were knocking together when I arrived in the classroom where the “tryouts” were being held. I looked around, but the object of my dickless desire was nowhere in sight. Suddenly, a script was thrust into my hands and I was told to read for the role of “Schupanzigh,” a character described in the play as “A German refugee, chubby, cultivated, and effervescent.” I was none of these things, but since there were only five male roles in the play (and exactly five boys auditioned), I was cast.

My fifteen years of life experience (as the child of Born Again Christian hillbillies) wasn't exactly the best preparation for the role of “Schupanzigh.” I remember sneaking into the school library to look up the meaning of the word “orgasm” which appeared in my lines. Hard to imagine in these sexually progressive times, but at age fifteen, I had never seen or heard the word before. To perfect my German accent, I started watching daily reruns of “Hogan’s Heroes”; striving to imitate Colonel Klink’s quirky speech patterns. Years later, I did a play with the actor Werner Klemperer’s girlfriend. One day (when I felt I knew him well enough) I told Werner what I thought was a highly amusing account of my desperate boyhood attempt to imitate his accent. Unfortunately, Werner failed to see any humor in the story. Looking at me rather disdainfully, he responded “I am sorry to hear that.”

After three weeks of rehearsal, “Black Comedy” opened in the high school cafeteria and much to our surprise, a few people actually came to see it; no doubt fooled by the word “comedy” in the title. Even though my mother told me I “stole the show,” I knew I was terrible. I was also terrible in the next play and the one after that. The fact that I was talentless never stopped me from auditioning and it never stopped Skip from casting me – mostly because he was always hard pressed to find boys who wanted to be in plays. I kept coming back for one simple reason: I (who had never belonged to any sort of group) had finally found a home in the drama club. We were the school’s walking wounded. Our door was open to the geekiest of the geeks, the gayest of the gays. We were the pimpled, the strange, the short, the fat, the dim and the dull. Among our ranks were the girls who would not be going to prom and the boys who could neither catch nor throw a ball.

Eventually Valryn Warren returned to Drama Club and she and I were cast as John and Elizabeth Proctor in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Valryn thought I was funny and took a liking to me. I was in Heaven. It was a ridiculous a situation. She was a year older and gorgeous. I was a year younger and a total nerd. She was dating some guy who was twenty-one years-old and had his own car. I was gay and didn’t even know it. Together, we read Ayn Rand, smoked tons of dope and pretentiously planned our escape from the land of the meat slicers. Grateful just to be near her, I accepted the most painful role a young man can cast in: my true love’s “friend.” Val never showed the slightest interest in me romantically and when she graduated a year ahead of me, disappeared, never to be heard from again. I recently Googled her and discovered that she’s now a reporter with the Dayton Daily News which makes me very happy indeed.

Even after Val’s departure, I continued to act in school plays; managing to be pretty good in “She Stoops to Conquer.” But somehow, my performance as “Willy Loman” in “Death of a Salesman” never quite gelled (I was seventeen at the time). I was just okay as “Lieutenant Harbison” in “South Pacific,” but I definitely scored some big laughs as “Rudolph,” the snooty waiter in “The Matchmaker.” Late in my senior year, when it became clear that I could not be talked out of studying Drama in college, my mother secretly went to see Skip. Even now, it blows my mind to think that my fate was probably decided by this historic summit. Apparently, my mother asked him point blank if he thought I had enough talent to make it in show business. Skip, never one to shrink from an awkward question, responded that talent really had nothing to do with it. “It could work out,” he assured her. “There are lots of terrible actors on television.”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hollywood Meltdown

Like a lot of other people, I cringed when I heard the recently released tape of Christian Bale going off on Shane Hurlbut, the cinematographer of “Terminator: Salvation.“ The incident (which happened on set back in July) was apparently sparked when Hurlbut crossed through Bale’s sightline while the star was filming a scene. The resulting three-minute, expletive-filled tirade made me want to crawl under my chair. I felt bad for all parties involved and was slightly relieved when, by mid-week, it started generating some very funny YouTube parodies including one where someone imitating Bale goes off on an imaginary craft service guy for having brought the wrong kind of donuts to the set. “Do you fucking understand that my fucking mind is not in the fucking scene if I don’t have the right fucking donut!”

It seems like every other week, some new poisonous celebrity tape emerges: David O. Russell calling Lily Tomlin the “C” word. Michael Richards calling two hecklers the “N” word. Alec Baldwin calling his daughter the “B” word. It’s all horrible to witness and serves as an unfortunate reminder of one of the darker sides of the business: Isolation. Show business can sometimes cut us off from the clarifying forces of reality; leaving us adrift and vulnerable to embarrassing bouts of insanity. Whether you are a big star or a hardworking drone, at a certain point in the process, real life retreats. When you are in your 17th day of working without adequate sleep and the pressures of producing a mega-success start hitting home, small things don’t seem so small anymore. Shit happens.

I’ll admit it. I love show business. And I hate seeing its fucked-up underbelly exposed. In truth, these abusive outbursts are actually pretty rare. I remember the first time I ever witnessed one. I was in an off-Broadway play, when the star lambasted all of us who were sharing the stage with her; proclaiming us a bunch of "shitty amateurs.” This was sort of strange given she was a total drunk who only managed to show up for every other performance. My ex was once appearing on an episode of “Star Trek: TNG” when (after working for fifteen hours straight), one of the stars asked that the entire cast and crew to be assembled for a very important announcement. The announcement turned out to be a formal dressing-down that ended with the star advising them to all go “fuck themselves.” According to my ex, everyone listened politely and then calmly went back to work as if the star had just announced that someone had left their lights on in the parking lot.

In truth, any of us is capable of a big freak-out. Including me. Early in my writing career, I got forced into a shotgun marriage with another writer whose work I didn’t know particularly well. Although he initially seemed like a nice enough guy, he actually wasn’t. In fact, he had some very serious problems (including a delusional tendency to view his life as some sort of Victorian melodrama in which he was always the tragic victim). Soon he’d written a role for me in the drama as well: that of the usurping, backstabbing traitor. It’s a long story (with two sides), but the collaboration went sour fast. The resulting script was just funny enough that it refused to die. The process drug on for years as people optioned and re-optioned the material (requiring further rewrites). By now, my “writing partner” and I could barely stand the sight of each other. All our meetings had to be held in public places since neither of us could tolerate the idea of having the other inside our home.

One of my collaborator’s favorite tactics was to refuse to pick up his phone when I called; forcing me to leave long detailed messages about whatever drama had sprung up. Then five minutes later, he would call me back and issue a clipped, highly-formal reply that always sounded like something William F. Buckley would have written for a Bette Davis movie. During one particularly tough day, I came home to a voicemail from him that not only didn’t answer my question, but included a tartly-worded set of instructions about how and when I was to contact him and which subjects I would be allowed to bring up in the future. After years of putting up with his crazy shit, I’d had it. I picked up the phone and left him a screaming vitriolic voicemail, intended to singe the hair off his fucking head. It felt incredible to let go with such childish abandon. The second I hung up, I regretted it, but oddly our relationship improved; mostly because from that point on all further communications were handled by attorneys.

I listened as Christian Bale called in to an L.A. radio show this week and issued a public apology for his “terrible, ridiculous behavior.” He seemed sincere enough, although it creeped me out a little when (toward the end of the interview) he expressed how much he didn’t want his childish antics to keep people from coming to see this “amazing film that so many had worked so hard on.” In other words, “Hate me, but don’t take my box office clout away.” Mr. Bale added that this incident had reminded him how terribly uncomfortable he is in his new role as a “movie star.” He wanted us to understand that he was first and foremost, an actor. And actors care. Deeply. And apparently all that caring occasionally boils over and scorches the skin off a few innocent bystanders. His statement struck me as sort of ironic since most of the actors I know (all of whom are quite easy to fire) don’t tend to have meltdowns like that. Only movie stars do stupid shit like that. Even in the murky waters of show business, there are a few realities that are hard to miss. I like Christian Bale’s acting and I hope his vision clears up soon.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Monday, February 2, 2009

I Am Growing Accustomed to Your Fame

Last fall, reruns of “Boston Legal” (a remarkable show that I had the honor to appear on for a while) started popping up on cable. As you might expect, this generated a rash of autograph requests. I’m always happy to comply with these and am very flattered that anyone would be interested enough to ask. When the show went into international syndication in December, responding to autograph requests suddenly became a much more expensive and time consuming proposition since each "photomailer" now required extra postage and a fully executed customs form. Then I started getting autograph requests from people who I suspected had never seen an episode of “Boston Legal” in their lives. Soon it became clear that my name had wound up on some kind of "list" as a small landslide of requests from amateur autograph collectors began arriving from around the globe.

Since Jan 1st, I’ve received 143 such requests. I thought I’d share a few excerpts from some of the more interesting ones.

“My Dear Sir,

With due respect and humble submission, I beg to draw your kind attention that this is one of my countless attempts to reach you, and needless to say once again that I am an ardent admirer of yours. In fact, I am growing accustomed to your fame.

But now, it seems to me that you have decided, not to reply my letters of deep admiration. Please tell me ,is it good to break the heart, you are ruling? It’s a pity! it's a pity! that I am still writing to you. In fact, you are my source of inspiration. That is why, I use to write to time and again despite your apathy towards me. Upon my words, you are absolutely unique and beyond compare. And you are my ideal of a perfect personality.

Therefore, I’ll be grateful to you, if you please take the trouble of sending me your much awaited and cherished autographed photograph, for memento. Because when I'll grow too old to dream, I’ll have this memento of yours ,to remember.”


Note: This guy has never written to me before. I checked. The next day I got this oddly similar letter from someone else.

“Respected Sir, As usual, I have started writing to you, once again. And also, as it is said in our traditions that, “If the door is not opened, then knock the door again.......but do not break the door!" So, I am still knocking your door. Your excellence has already made me your admirer. Words are not enough for your talent. I wish I were like you. There is no one who can take your place. So, I’ll consider myself very fortunate, if I can have your signed photo, for my album. Your worthless admirer, is requesting once again.”

Note: I’ve never heard from this person before either. However, I’ll probably reply simply because his return address (in Calcutta) included the phrase “Near Tank # 12.” In my opinion, anyone who lives near a “tank” (of any kind) deserves all the cheering up they can get. Some of these requests have come from a little closer to home. Like this one from Western New York:

“I am setting up a game room / Bar in my basement and would love if you could send me a personalized photo that i could hang on the wall. It would fit in perfect with the theme of the basement”

“Dear Mr David Dean Bottrell,
I am one of your great and constant foreign admirer. Could you please send me a dedicated picture? You are world famous actor and screenwriter. I enjoy all what you do.”

“DEAR SIR I LOST EVERYTHING I OWN. WOULD PLEASE SEND ME & MY NEW STEP SON AUTOGRAPH PHOTOS.”

“Please send me your two original signed photo. I will hang it on my wall with also received autographed photos like Bill Gates, HE Pop Benedict XVI and George Bush.”

Every once in a while, I get a letter that makes my day. Danny (not his real name) sent me a letter which although quite long, was filled with lots of fun details and helpful product suggestions. What follows is only a brief excerpt.

My name is Danny Yates. I"m 35 years old, & I"m typing this letter to tell you that you're a sweet & handsome Actor. You know David, I really, really like all of your Movies, & T.V's a lot too, wow David, I"m really tickled of you David. You know what David Dean Bottrell, I think you're such a sweet & handsome doll, because you have a sweet & handsome voice, sweet & handsome smile, & David, you also have a nice, sweet & precious heart of gold too.

David, did you know that I"m an athlete with Special Olympics? Well David, if you don"t believe me, well, let me tell you this, I always congradgulate the other teams, even though if I don't either get a gold medal, or a first place, & that's why I do something which is called “Sportsmanship", & that's why I"ve been participating in Special Olympics for 23 years, & that's why I"m collecting all of my awards in my boxes too. & David, also get this, I got the 1998 "Most Inspirational Award", 1999 "Kathy Fies Scholarship Award", & the 2008 "Sportsmanship Of The Year Award", too. so David, aren't you very proud of me? Well David, I"m really proud of it, & David, I also deserve this too.

David, also, if you send me your Autograph Picture, can you make sure, & can you write it very clear, so I can see your Autograph Writing Signature, & lastly, can you write either "To Danny", "Danny", or even "Dear Danny"? If you can, I really appreciate you did. David, I would like to dedicate this Special Olympics Athlete"s Oath to you, & David, here I go, it tells me to "Let Me Win, But If I Cannot Win, Let Me Be Brave In The Attempt", too. isn"t that something or what?

Well David Dean Bottrell, I have to go now, but David Dean Bottrell, I just really, really wanted to say "Thank You for your sweet time, & also, also for your patience".

This guy’s getting a picture for sure. Whatever we are doing this week, let’s all (like Danny) be brave in the attempt. See you next time, Hollywood.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv